Photo: British Ukrainian Society, Chief rabbi of Ukraine Facebook page (c) 2018
Ukraine: a personal perspective
7 September 2018
On 4 September the British Ukrainian Society presented another speech from its lecture series which was organised at the Portcullis House.
Rabbi Moshe-Reuven Azman, Chief Rabbi of Ukraine presented his talk entitled, ‘Ukraine: a personal perspective‘.
During his talk Rabbi Moshe-Reuven Azman discussed his personal observations about current affairs in Ukraine, the historic contributions of the Jewish community in the country and its current renaissance.
A transcript of his speech can be found below:
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Dear Members of Parliament, dear guests.
It is a great honor for me to speak here before you.
When I was a boy, and the Soviet press called me “the enemy of a communist society” because I wanted to observe the traditions of my people, I could not imagine that today I would be standing at the heart of world democracy – in the British Parliament.
For more than 25 years my life has been connected with the Jewish community of Kyiv and Ukraine. Many miracles of the Jewish revival took place before my eyes. I saw how the Soviet-era Puppet Theater left the synagogue building, and how with immense effort and hard work the Brodsky Synagogue came back to life in the year 2000. Every day I witness how our House of Prayer to the Almighty has become a warm home for all Jews of Kyiv and Ukraine.
In Ukraine, four years after the Maidan, a breakthrough in the creation of civil society took place. We notice how free media and civil society structures are developing. Our society gets control over the actions of the authorities, and this is very important.
I would like to emphasize that our synagogue and community in the first days after the bloody battles on Maidan helped to send the wounded for treatment in Israel in March 2014.
I understand the difficulties and problems facing Ukraine today. Our country defends itself for the fifth year against the aggression of Russia and the pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk region.
These military actions, together with the illegal annexation of the Crimea by Russia, brought about a huge wave of refugees – more than 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees, including Jews. Think about this fact: for the first time since the Second World War, we have Jewish refugees in Europe!
Our community is forced to spend its modest resources not on its development, but on emergency first aid to refugees. The Jewish communities of Western Europe and the United States need to solve the problem of how to attract young people for holidays, and our community in Kyiv is forced to solve problems of physical survival – how to provide shelter, food, jobs for people who lost everything because of the war.
And our community has withstood the test! We created the flagship project Anatevka – a development for hundreds of displaced people from the East of Ukraine. In critical conditions of war and economic crisis, we found local and foreign sponsors. Now Anatevka is the fastest growing town near Kiev. If you want to see the real miracles of the Almighty in modern life – come to Anatevka, and you will see the revival of the Jewish village, made famous by the musical “Fiddler on the Roof”.
I must say that the current situation in Ukraine is far from ideal. I see contradictory trends. On the one hand, the new government after the Maidan military actions, becomes more transparent and open to civil society. On the other hand, many reforms are hampered or not fully implemented. Beautiful slogans often disagree with real life.
The Ukrainian people are tired of war and long lasting impoverishment. There is a growing disappointment with the reforms in the society. This is especially evident when the mass media talk about the participation of the political elite in corruption schemes, in the smuggling of forests and minerals.
In my opinion, one of the main unresolved problems of Ukraine is the preservation of the old corrupt judicial system. A fair trial is the foundation of a fair society, and this is one of the main principles of Judaism. I believe that Ukraine will not move forward without a radical replacement of the judicial system and the cleaning of law enforcement agencies, which often are a mechanism for suppressing people.
For example, this summer we successfully freed from prison Vadim (Israel) Repkin, a parishioner of our synagogue. He was sentenced to 14 years of imprisonment just on the basis of the testimony of a person, whom the investigators beat to get these testimonies. Our community together with deputies of the Ukrainian parliament fought for the liberation of this innocent man for three years – and we won.
I can say with full confidence that today there are no expressions of anti-Semitism at the state level in Ukraine. We see great sympathy for everything Jewish. I want to share with you the latest example.
A week ago, Ukrainians and Jews together celebrated the 120th anniversary of our Brodsky synagogue. Among many congratulations, I want to quote the words of one politician, representative of the new generation of Ukraine, the local governor of Kyiv region Alexander Gorgan.
He stated: “It is very important for us when every Jew in Ukraine feels at home, that it is his/her land”.
Gorgan noted the positive changes in the Ukrainian-Jewish relations that took place over the years after pro-Western revolution of Maidan-2014. The head of the Kyiv region said: “We really appreciate the support that the Brodsky synagogue gave us during the Orange Revolution, and especially during the Revolution of Dignity. Your active position changed the Ukrainian patriots. My friends who were fighting alongside me in the Maidan Square were tattooing a tryzub (trident – the national Ukrainian symbol) with a Star of David. Today every Ukrainian nationalist is an ardent Zionist”.
These words of the Kyiv governor reflect a new trend in modern Ukraine: great respect and great sympathy for Jews, complete freedom for Judaism and Jewish community projects.
At the same time, I see great interest from Ukrainians towards Israel. The Israeli experience of building a successful national state, reviving the language and protecting the country from a much stronger enemy is all being discussed in Ukrainian society. I even hear expressions like “Ukraine should become Israel of Eastern Europe”.
Nevertheless, I see dangerous trends in Ukrainian society, which concern many members of our Jewish community. There are some who glorify the collaborators of the Third Reich. To my great regret, the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory implants this concept as a new state ideology backed by government money.
We are alarmed by the blind eye approach granted to historical figures who fought for the independence of Ukraine. In many cities of Ukraine there are monuments and museum expositions in which they glorify such people, but do not report their anti-Semitism, responsibility for the Jewish pogroms of 1918-1920 or their complicity in the crimes of the Nazi regime during the Second World War. The State Administration of the Lviv region held a contest among schoolchildren in the spring of this year, dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the creation of the Galizien SS division, which swore an oath to Hitler.
When Jewish activists protest against such a glorification, they often receive an answer from the Ukrainian side: “We appreciate these historical figures not for anti-Semitism or anti-Jewish texts or pogroms. We appreciate their struggle for the independence of Ukraine.” Also voiced are things like: “Such glorification is only a temporary way of ideological mobilization of Ukrainians during the war with Russia.”
But I do not agree with these arguments. The historical experience of the Jewish people and the principles of Jewish morality tell us: wherever murderers, anti-Semites and Nazi collaborators are glorified, there can not grow a healthy and tolerant society. The glorification of such figures harms not only the Jewish community, but Ukraine itself.
I see similar contradictory trends to the memory of the Holocaust in Ukraine. On the one hand, the President Petro Poroshenko, together with the government of Volodymyr Groisman, pays much attention to the Holocaust. In September 2016, the entire country at the highest state level celebrated the 75th anniversary of the tragedy of Babi Yar. In many cities and villages, local authorities on their own initiative held memorial ceremonies for their neighbors, the victims of the Holocaust.
On the other hand, every week I receive information from different cities of the country about acts of vandalism at the places where Jews were murdered. There are desecrations of memorial signs, a circus show was performed next to the mass graves of victims of the Holocaust, in the city of Kovel. There are attempts to build houses on sites where bones of victims of the Holocaust were discovered.
In some incidents, the police find people who have torn up the graves of murdered Jews. But in most cases, the authorities and the police react meekly and unprofessionally. When the police reacts to all acts of vandalism against Jewish sites in Ukraine by saying that is the work of “sabotage groups of Moscow agents,” it does not arouse much confidence. Rather, it appears like they are trying to get away from a critical analysis of the internal problems of extremism in Ukrainian society.
I believe that real help from the West is needed to radically improve the situation in Ukraine. Target programs focused on specific reforms are needed. We need mass training for new top-managers, police officers, government and local officials from the younger generation with a guarantee of their introduction to leading positions through out Ukraine. We need a complete replacement of the old judicial system.
Another point is that Ukraine urgently needs Western assistance in defense. Give Ukraine a helping hand, do not leave it alone to confront a much stronger opponent! This enemy wants no independent Ukraine to exist. But the people of Ukraine, and the Jewish community in particular, want to live in an independent Ukraine, which has a huge development potential.
Let the Almighty bless Ukraine, Great Britain and the entire Jewish people on the eve of the 5779th Jewish New Year!